10 Active Listening Skills and Tips

Published on:

May 4, 2021

Active Listening in Customer Service

Did you know around 75% of the time when we’re listening, we are distracted or preoccupied? 

This means immediately after listening to someone talk we can only recall around half of what was said. An hour after a conversation, we remember less than 20% of it. 

All this goes to show how often we’re not heard.

Less than 2% of people have a formal education on listening, despite how much it dominates our day-to-day lives. Especially in the workplace, active listening is a vital skill. This is never truer than for customer service agents. 

Active listening in customer service can transform a mediocre experience into an outstanding one, as well as help call handlers become more confident, capable and productive team members.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • What is active listening in customer service?
  • Why is active listening important?
  • The benefits of active listening in customer service
  • Active listening skills and tips
  • How to develop active listening
  • Managing active listening

What Is Active Listening in Customer Service?

Think about the last time you were on the phone with a customer. Were you giving them your undivided attention?

Possibly not. It’s easy to be distracted by other things happening around you. Whether that’s other people in the house while remote working or office bustle. Similarly, we can get lost in our own thoughts, especially if we’ve been doing the same job for a while and feel like we’ve heard it all. This is what’s known as passive listening. We’re hearing someone, but we’re not really giving them our full attention. Active listening is the opposite of this.

Active listening is a technique of listening. We can define it as:

Active Listening Definition:

“Active listening is a technique of listening that can be developed over time. It involves actively listening, often with all senses, as opposed to passively hearing another person.”

Active listening in customer service means being entirely focused on what the customer is saying; what words they’re using, what those words mean and responding in an empathetic manner. This means hearing tone and acknowledging the power of vocabulary.

For many customer service workers, this is much harder to achieve over the phone than it is face-to-face. After all, the customer can’t see your expressions or gestures. But it’s incredibly important to develop active listening as a skill for call handlers. 

Why Is Active Listening Important?

The reason active listening is such a vital skill in customer service is simple — customers want to be heard and understood.

So often when we call up companies with an issue, that issue is amplified when we feel like the company is not hearing our problem. Large companies who outsource to cheaper global locations can be particularly guilty of this as their agents are stuck with a script with minimal flexibility to actually hear and help customers. It’s a frustrating experience for everyone involved.

With active listening, we engage with customers to truly understand and help them. It helps agents get to the root of queries and issues, as well as encourages agents to treat customers as the unique individuals they are. It allows for better communication, builds trust and ultimately delivers a better customer experience.

Benefits of Active Listening in Customer Service

Not only does it help us understand our customers better, but there are many other benefits of active listening in customer service too. 

Increases Empathy

Customer empathy is such an important tool in delivering better customer service. Active listening is intrinsically linked to customer empathy. 

Without actively listening, you’ll struggle to empathise with your customers. Assuming you know what the needs of any given customer are because you’ve heard it all before, as opposed to actually listening to them, will create lacklustre customer experiences. 

With active listening techniques, we signal to the customer that we are engaged and empathetic to their needs

Better Resolutions

To deliver truly outstanding customer service, companies need to be able to resolve the difficult calls just as well as the easy ones. Service breakdowns happen, but how companies resolve them is how your customer will remember you.

When call advisors are actively listening, they can read between the lines of these conversations to determine what the best resolution would be for that exact customer. So instead of following strict guidelines for resolution, agents are empowered to problem-solve, build rapport with customers and ultimately, deliver great outcomes that will restore trust in your brand. 

Focus on the Customer

How many times have you called up a company and ended up barely getting a word in? There’s a million tick box questions to answer before you can even explain why you were calling. It’s a frustrating experience.

Active listening helps keep the focus on the customer. Alongside customer service questioning techniques, it can help you get to the root of issues and queries quickly and in the customer’s own words.

Reduces Miscommunication

Miscommunication is a recipe for disaster in customer service. It sets mismatched expectations which are bound to lead to disappointment or frustration down the line. For customers who have had other negative experiences with your brand, it is often a breaking point for them to leave. 

Active listening helps reduce miscommunication. Especially when it’s used alongside clarifying questions to further ensure the agent and customer are on the same page.

Continual Improvement

When we actively listen, we take more in. We can spot patterns or repetitions. We think about problems in more depth.

This can help us identify areas to improve, both personally and across the business. When your team members are actively listening, encourage them to communicate and document what they learn. This can give businesses great insight into opportunities for improvement. 

10 Active Listening Skills and Tips

As we mentioned in the introduction, listening might seem like it’s a second nature skill for most people. But the reality is, it isn’t. Driven employees can be guilty of wanting to talk more than listen, while more passive employees may be guilty of not fully paying attention.

We’ll look at how you can develop active listening skills with training exercises shortly, but first let’s look at some active listening skills and tips to see whether you’re already doing them.

1. Verbalise Understanding

Actively verbalise that you are following your customer’s train of thought. Use statements like, “I understand” or “I see”, or even gentle interjections such as “uh-huh” or “mhm”. This helps the customer know you’re engaged without interrupting. Speaking of...

2. Don’t Interrupt

Gentle interjections like the above are fine, but don’t cut off or interrupt customers. It’s a poor customer service experience, but it also shows you don’t value what your customer is saying.

3. Be Empathetic

We’ve written plenty about customer empathy before, but its importance cannot be overstated. 

Recent studies have shown that 9 out of 10 consumers want brands to show empathy in their behaviour, with a further 86% of consumers stating it is critical to fostering loyalty. 

Part of effective listening is demonstrating understanding. So listen and verbalise your empathy. You can do this by using statements like, “I understand why you would feel like that”.

4. Minimise Distractions

It’s so easy to get distracted. Especially when our working environments have undergone such large changes over the last year. 

Make sure your environment is as distraction free as possible. This doesn’t mean locking yourself in a bland, silent room. But rather doing things like removing clutter, creating a calm space in which to work and minimising clutter on your laptop by having less windows and tabs open. 

This can help you focus on the task at hand — helping your customer.

5. Clarify

Repeat and paraphrase what customers have said, providing them with a summary of your understanding of events. This demonstrates to customers that you are actively listening and understanding their issue, as well as giving them an opportunity to correct any miscommunications. You can also use closed, clarifying questions to achieve this.

6. Use Questioning Techniques

We’ve mentioned questioning techniques a couple of times, but in essence, you should be using a variety of question types and techniques to best understand your customers. Using a mix of open, closed, probing and clarifying questions can help you get the best information from your customer to lead you both to the best outcome. 

7. Be Calm

An upset customer may take out their anger on a call agent. It happens. Stay calm in these situations and avoid arguing or becoming defensive or agitated. Use a calm, empathetic tone and demonstrate you want to listen to their issue

8. Be Human

There’s a simple reason we all hate autobot answering services. They can’t relate to us as humans.

Relate to your customers and demonstrate that you relate to them as you listen to their concerns. It shows you want to improve their unique experience. 

9. Don’t Get Stuck in Your Head

So often when we’re listening to someone speak, we’re thinking about how we’re going to respond to someone as opposed to actually listening to them. When we do this, we miss out on finer details that we should have asked more questions about in order to deliver a better service and gather more information. 

When your customer speaks, give all of your attention to what they are saying.

10. Take Notes

We can’t all be blessed with eidetic memory. Fortunately, there’s a simple way around it with a pen and paper.

Take notes as you listen to customers so you can correctly recall information later on. You can let the customer know you’re taking notes, this will reinforce that you care and you’re listening. Use your notes to highlight pertinent information that will help you resolve the call in the best way possible. 

How to Develop Active Listening: Exercises and Training Ideas

Just like with any other skill, active listening can be developed. So don’t worry if you feel like your team’s active listening skills could use some improvement. Here are some of our favourite active listening exercises. 

Time Crunch

Split your team in two. Tell one of the teams to share an experience and tell the other team to stop listening after 30 seconds and then make pairs from opposite teams.

The speaker will become frustrated and annoyed when they realise the agent has stopped listening to them. This can help your advisors experience first hand how unpleasant it is not to be listened to. 

Heard it Through the Grapevine

Much like the school ground game of whispers, this exercise is very funny when it goes awry. Ask one member of your team to go outside your room and wait until they’re given directions on where to go next.

Then put the rest of your team in a circle or line. Whisper directions to the first team member, who will whisper them to the next and so on all the way down the line until they reach the team member outside the door. 

The directions are very likely to be different to how they started out and demonstrates how easily miscommunication and misunderstandings can happen. 

The Event

Prepare a short description of a dramatic event, as well as a series of questions to ask your team about it. This can highlight how although we’re all listening to the same thing, we will all pick up on different aspects of it. 

You can use the “The Witches of Glum” story if you don’t want to write your own.

Managing Active Listening

It should go without saying, businesses should be encouraging environments where active listening is an achievable goal.

Being 100% focused throughout an entire work day is a tricky task. Re-focusing on customers over and over again can be draining and difficult to achieve.

Businesses should encourage breaks, especially at peak times. Advisors who are overloaded with stressful calls don’t have the energy to give 100%, nor the mental capacity. Short breaks can help employees de-stress and give them an energy boost when they need it. 

Team leaders and managers should also be leading by example. After all, if managers aren’t listening to those on their team, why would team members think to listen to customers?

So managers should be actively listening and being empathetic with team members. Just like customers, employees who feel valued and listened to will be more motivated and happier. All this energy passes onto the customer.

Similarly, dole out praise even more often than you dole out criticisms. Create a learning environment where mistakes aren’t a bad thing, but an opportunity for personal development. Then take note when that development happens.

Look beyond basic metrics to qualitative data. So often in call centres, management are only interested in metrics like average handling time or time to answer, but these don’t give us insight into the quality of the call. Pursue more worthwhile metrics like first call resolution or customer satisfaction levels. 

Most of all, encourage your team to feedback what they learn while actively listening. Use these insights to improve and develop processes for both your employees and your customers. 

Develop Active Listening With Training

Active listening in customer service isn’t something we all inherently know. It takes time, practice and training to achieve.

We can help with all three with our bespoke telephone sales and skills training course, where among many other topics, we help your advisors improve their active listening skills. Find out more

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About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to help raise UK Business Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030. Connect on LinkedIn

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